I was convinced chemistry was my calling when I started college. It’s practical; it’s awesome (in high school, we made our own bouncy balls); it’s … an ungodly amount of work and located as far away from everything else on campus as humanly possible. But while my academic interests drifted from science to history of science to plain history, my desire to make cool stuff has remained firmly intact. Every now and then I miss the lab. The vaguely scientific process of making ricotta cheese seemed like a more delicious way of satisfying my urge to put on a lab coat than signing up for inorganic chemistry during my senior spring.
Ricotta means “re-cooked” in Italian. The cheese is traditionally made with the whey remaining from the production of other cheeses. The whey is fermented at room temperature for 12–24 hours and heated until it is near boiling. The additional protein precipitates out of the whey (I told you this was scientific) and forms a fine curd, which is drained through cheesecloth. The remaining product is fresh ricotta cheese.
Not being a cheese producer, I did not have any leftover whey in my apartment. I neither wanted to wait 12-24 hours for the dairy to ferment at room temperature, nor was I totally comfortable eating the by-product of dairy that had been sitting on my counter for a day. Luckily, perfectly tasty homemade ricotta can be made in whey-less kitchens without the questionable countertop fermentation period. The process involves heating milk, curdling it with the addition of an acidic liquid, scooping out the curds and draining them in a cheesecloth-lined colander.
Since I wanted to go about this project scientifically, I tested four recipes. Two called for whole milk and lemon juice but varied with respect to the cooking and draining procedures. The third called for buttermilk instead of lemon juice as a curdling agent. The richest of the four used heavy cream in addition to the milk. Two of the recipes required bringing the milk to a specific temperature, while the other two simply specified that it reach a simmer or rolling boil.
The four batches of ricotta were labeled, chilled and subject to rigorous testing in the form of bringing the ricotta to a friend’s apartment and demanding that we eat cheese for dinner. Making an entire meal of ricotta is simple. A bowl of fresh ricotta mixed with chopped herbs or black pepper and generously drizzled with olive oil is delicious when spread on bread. Pasta can be stuffed or sauced with the cheese. Ricotta can be used in tarts or baked goods, or can be eaten by the spoonful, drizzled with honey and chopped nuts. Although the tests produced no obvious winner, there were clear distinctions between the batches. The cream and milk version was noticeably richer than the others, and the lone unsalted version, undeniably bland. Selecting the best recipe is a matter of personal preference. So make a few batches, invite some friends over and have a ricotta party in the name of science.
Fresh Ricotta (makes about 1 1/2 cups)
2 quarts whole milk
A good pinch of salt
3 T. lemon juice
Line a colander with cheesecloth folded so it is four or five layers thick. Place the colander in the sink. It is also helpful to measure out the lemon juice now, before beginning to heat the milk.
Heat the milk and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the milk from scorching. When the milk is nearly boiling (if you are using a thermometer, the temperature will be about 200 F), add the lemon juice. Turn the heat down and simmer, stirring constantly, for one to two minutes until the mixture curdles.
With a shallow or slotted spoon, scoop the curds from the top of the pot and place them in the cheesecloth-lined colander. Allow the curds to drain for between one and 15 minutes, depending on how wet or dry you’d like your finished cheese to be. Refrigerate and use within a few days.